Science Policy

Bio-fuel is a sham and a boon to big ag-industry. It takes much needed food from poor, developing nations who’s citizens are starving and redirects it to affluent, non-starving countries (like the US) who need more fuel to get around town in an “eco-friendly” manner. There is also no evidence to support the contention that biofuels are even any more environmentally less harmful than fossil fuels. Just because we can, for the moment, grow the fuel it does not mean we can do so indefinitely or even in the short term. Combustion is a wasteful, archaic technology that will torpedo us into our sooty graves.

Why, in the age of the electron, are we still using hydrocarbons to provide us with energy? And why are we not looking forward to the age of the photon (or beyond)? We have a free, virtually limitless, source of energy literally falling on our heads every day (unless you live in the NW). Solar cells take those photons and move electrons around, creating electricity, with no fossil fuels, no soot, no CO2, and no dead baby dinosaurs had to be excavated. Plants have done it for millions of years. They’re no dummies.

While I agree that humans are the biggest detrimental contributor to the destruction of our natural world, I don’t think we should starve ourselves to death while continuing polluting our own air, either.

From the NYT:

“Pushing back against the Democratic-led Congress, President Bush vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have eased restraints on federally funded embryonic stem cell research.”

Let’s hear it for politicians’ infinite wisdom when it comes to science. Being in the current situation that I’m in, I am acutely aware of the lasting implications of legislators’ pen strokes. They push dollars around, and people’s lives (not theirs, though) are heavily impacted. Science has become an unneeded commodity in our current political climate. My advisor was awarded a Guggenheim a few years ago, and now there’s not a cent to be found. Not from the NIH, NSF, ACS, AIP, heck I’d even ask AA or AAA for money at this point. But the source of all of these organization’s funding (Uncle Sam) has deemed them “discretionary,” and has treated them as such. So as the war rages on, our sciences fall further behind, and my paycheck goes to the pentagon.

And now with W.’s latest blunder, he has single-handedly set the timeline for finding a cure for cancer back about a decade, while simultaneously vilifying geneticists and dissuading a generation of youths from scientific careers. Yesss. Man, he’s good. Four more years!?

W. has used his veto power three times while in the white house. Two vetoes limited funds available to scientists, and the other made an open ended affair of the Iraq war. It’s like a modern day reversal of Robin Hood. Someone must have had a really bad science teacher in high school.

Had lunch with our annual special physical chemistry seminar speaker today, a big-wig in US science policy and a professor from UT Austin. Lunch was great (Laad Naa), and the conversation was fairly encouraging regarding the future of science in America, and for me in particular. He said that more and more universities are starting medical schools based in large part on the fact that a growing number of young faculty members are married to medical professionals, and hey we may have fancy degrees but we still need jobs. I brought up the topic of women as an untapped resource in scientific research with somewhat antagonistic motivations. He is from texas after all. But it seems that he fully recognizes the challenges facing women scientists today, and is committed to addressing them in the proper forums. He actually raised several issues that I had not been aware of. I asked him if he sees any changes happening currently and he said that, yes, there are changes, but it will take about 10 years or so before they manifest themselves.

On another note. This is sub-titled: why I don’t use proprietary software willingly. This is not a diatribe against microsoft. Too often people mistake poorly written non-ms software that is designed to run on windows with the real thing.

Windows based software sucks for research. It is over engineered. While casual PC users make up the lion’s share of consumers, there are still a few of us who do not so casual things like writing manuscripts with 3 page long equations in them. By trying to make the use of their products easier for the general public, they have made them a royal pain the the a$$ for me.

The great thing about open source software is that it is so rudimentary to the point of having to tell it exactly what to do, that when you have an exact idea of what you want it to do it is very easily implemented with a few lines of code. No auto-complete, no spell-check, grammar-check, or cryptic tab settings. If you want an equation with the third line indented 1/16 of an inch more than the rest it is easily done with about 10 keystrokes, rather than 10 hours of clicking, highlighting, dragging and searching through the most non-intuitive labyrinth that is windows help features.

I realize that windows is not designed for this type of use in mind. That’s why I use Linux. But my boss wants word documents. So word documents he shall get.
But for anyone with a choice, take 30 minutes to learn Tex and Bibtex, and save the lifetime of self-inflicted punishment that is trying to get word, mathtype and endnote to jive.

It’s not very often that I’m wrong, but holy crap. Maybe Rummy read this and grew a conscience. Wait, I guess that kind of makes me right. I’m on a roll. My next prediction: Hugo Chavez elected first non-citizen president.

I’m curious to see if Science Friday will address any potential changes in US science policy yesterday’s election results will have.

When I chose my current field of study I was promised fame and glory. I was told that I’d be seen as a liberator and welcomed with flowers and candy. I didn’t have enough foresight to envision the resistance from those I’ve tried to free from the shackles of ignorance.When people ask me what I do I use one of two responses depending on my audience. For most people it’s a simple, “I’m a chemist.” Which almost invariably elicits a response about drugs. On the east coast it’s which pharmaceutical company I work for, while on the west coast it’s whether or not I make crystal meth. Yes. I am spending nearly a decade of my life, putting myself into major debt and working on a PhD. so that I can make crystal meth to support the habit of the people that stole the old shoes and flashlight out of my car at 3 AM.
The other response I give to people that I don’t particularly feel like talking to is, “I am a theoretical chemical physicist.” That usually does the trick. The only response I ever get is a genuinely disinterested, “hmm.”

These examples highlight a major problem facing scientist everywhere. The image that society holds of scientists is one of crazed anti-social lunatics that adhere to no moral or ethical standards. On the contrary I’d say that scientists, who have been trained to thoroughly analyze and reanalyze everything until they’ve exhausted any potential ambiguities, are in a better position to make moral and ethical decisions regarding their research than the average citizen and by proxy any politician. We have to live with the personal responsibility of our decisions. While there may be a collective guilt regarding the atom bombs used in WWII, think about how Oppenheimer felt.

When the words “cloning,” or “stem cell,” are brought up in conversation, people automatically envision growing babies in glass beakers. This is simply a misunderstanding grown from misinformation. People just don’t keep up with science like they used to. It’s the “what have you done for me lately” syndrome. During Oppenheimer’s time it was honorable to be a theoretical physicist since they were “ridding the world communism” and people were more informed. Modern society has chemists and physicist to thank for almost every little thing that defines our day to day lives. The computer you are now on, the CD’s, ipods, cameras, LCDs, anything digital are all by-products of quantum mechanics. But somewhere there is a disconnect between the people that make the things and the things themselves. We don’t get credit for doing anything for people lately and end up invisible, so we end up with a bad rap and people are afraid of us and what we do and feel they need to control us with legislation and purse strings. It is an image problem. Doctors, by the way, don’t have this problem. They have George Clooney and the entire staff at Seattle Grace to help them out. We get people like this.

This is why more scientists should be getting involved in politics. And not the Bill Frist kind. He should be stripped of his degrees for his involvement in the Terri Schiavo debacle. We need to restore our image as upstanding citizens, not as rogues setting out to dismantle society. A few TV dramas couldn’t hurt either.